Tom & CERI Blog


Lifelong learning - putting your money where your mouth is

Is lifelong learning something which countries pay lip service to, or are they serious about it?  Given that the population in almost all OECD countries is ageing, and people will want to as well as need to cope with the changes in personal and professional lives this brings, you would think this would be a no-brainer.  But it’s not at all clear to me that countries are genuinely committed, in the sense of putting their money where their mouths are.  Instead, there is a general preference for continuing to expand young people’s education. In February I shall be leaving OECD to take up a post as director of an independent inquiry into lifelong learning in the UK.   So the question  will be a very real one for me to grapple with.  Any nominations for countries who have a lifelong learning strategy in place?”

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How far should educational research aim to provide evidence for policy?  

This was the topic of a conference organized this week by the Swedish Research Council.  At first sight it made seem an odd question.  Surely researchers – or at least some of them - should be interested in helping make policy better.  After all, if you do research on education, you presumably hope that at some point this might play a part in improving people’s chances of successful learning.   But in fact there is quite a hot debate about the nature of this engagement.  Some researchers feel that getting to close to policy threatens their independence or objectivity.  
There are also questions about what is meant by ‘evidence’,  as our recent CERI publication Evidence in Education: Linking Policy and Research explores in some detail.  Who decides what is to count as ‘robust’ evidence is both an immediate political issue and  can lead to deep philosophical problems – Bengt Molander, a philosopher whose rather surprising home is the Norwegian Institute for Technology,  discussed at the SRC meeting.  Certainly countries vary widely in their general response to it

One other presentation, by Olle Stendhal, dealt with clinical research.  Like educational research, it lacks funding and infrastructure, and its research corps is ageing.  What other parallels might there be between clinical and educational research?

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Research training for teachers? 

One interesting issue is how far teachers are trained to deal with research, or even  conduct research themselves.  If we think it is a good idea that teaching should be based on sound evidence and research, it would seem also to be a good idea to enable teachers to have good access to useful research.  But in very few countries is any kind of training in research included in teacher training.  Finland is an obvious exception, where all teachers are trained in basic research methods.  This enables them to carry out small-scale research themselves.  But probably more importantly it gives them the confidence and the tools to access research studies, and the mindset to draw on research to improve their practice.  Other examples?

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Adding an odd-one-out can challenge traditional ways of thinking

A question that is worth asking for those of us involved in comparative policy analysis:  what is kinds of country grouping is most useful for benchmarking purposes?  A cluster such as Germany, Austria and Switzerland makes obvious sense - shared language, common frontiers, similar education systems etc. Scandinavian countries form a similar grouping. But other countries might choose to link up on different grounds. For example, Chile, Portugal, New Zealand and Norway are very different but are all geographically peripheral, and so face similar issues in integrating themselves into the global economy, and developing the right skills. - especially as they all depend on natural resources. We probably need to get a sharper focus in our comparisons, so that countries can learn most effectively. But this doesn't mean always looking for the most similar;  a homogeneous group might also benefit from having an 'outsider' or two to challenge its ways of thinking.

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Randomised Control Trials for education?

I took part last week in a meeting devoted to thinking about the use of Randomised Control Trials (RCTs) in social policy generally – including education.  RCTs arouse strong feelings.  Those who support their use in education are few in number, but many of them feel that RCTs are the most powerful tool for producing real causal evidence.  But many educationalists (especially researchers – less so practitioners or policy-makers) are completely opposed to them, on a variety of grounds:  they are unethical, they don’t work, they cost too much, and (usually the most fiercely expressed) education just isn’t something suitable for  them – it cannot be tested like drugs are tested.

I have to say I used to think like this, but have changed my position  - not , as it happens, as a result of this meeting, but one about three years ago, and subsequent discussions.  This does not mean I have undergone some Damascene conversion – I still think there is only a limited role for RCTs, and that the claims made for them are often exaggerated.  But I do now think that they can aid the educational debate very significantly – not only by the evidence they produce, but by the way in which discussion of whether they might be suitable to explore a particular issue can be a rigorous way of exploring how to research an issue.  In education we certainly need more evidence of what works – including evidence from trials where these can be done properly and effectively.

I was also very struck at this meeting by the argument that RCTs might save us from the mass proliferation of regressions analyses – also a useful tool when used rightly,  but not when not.

Above all, though, I hope we can avoid the polarization into pro and anti- RCT camps.  The sensible discussion is about when they are appropriate, and how they can complement other methodologies.

Incidentally, there is an excellent discussion of the place RCTs and experimental design can play in educational research and policy, by Tom Cook and Stephen Gorard, in our recent publication Evidence in Education: Linking Research and Policy.

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Illiteracy and literacy for the deaf

I went last week to a big meeting in Lyon, organized by the French Campaign against illiteracy (illétrisme).  About 500 people attended, mostly practitioners dealing with various programmes.  There are just over 3m illettrés in France – by coincidence, I learnt last week that in China they estimate that ten times that figure joined the illiterate population in just the last five years. 
My colleague Janet Looney was presenting our work on innovative approaches to the assessment of adult  students with low literacy and numeracy skills (see  The French case studies in that work include a case study of literacy work in a French prison – which took me back decades to the time  I spent as an unofficial prison visitor.  I learnt a lot from that period, and have always thought that visiting a prison at least once should be a compulsory part of everyone’s curriculum.
The most fascinating part of the conference for me was a discussion of literacy for the profoundly deaf.  The question of how sign language relates to spoken language, how sign language can or cannot be translated into other ‘languages’ and therefore whether people using sign language can communicate better across frontiers than conventional speakers is enough to make the mind spin.  It’s something for our upcoming project on language competences to grapple with maybe.

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comment sent by Christina Hinton, 28.06.2007

An estimated 781 million adults in the world are illiterate, about 64% of whom are women. A new project of the European Union and the UNESCO Institute for Education (UIE) – QualiFLY – is tackling illiteracy by focusing on family literacy. Family literacy is an approach that targets intergenerational interactions in the family and community that promote literacy. Recognizing that learning to read is not an individual pursuit, the project links adult education, parents' education and pre-school and primary education. Read more about QualiFLY:

Gender queries: how social capital helps females do better

I want to suggest that social capital may explain the gender gap in educational attainment, but also why it hasn’t had more of an economic effect.

One of the most striking, and almost universal, educational trends of the last decade has been the shift in the relative achievements of males and females.  In almost every single OECD country, girls now do better than boys at almost every level, up to and including doctoral, and in almost every single subject.  In a few countries maths, engineering and physics still remain a male preserve, but even in these the picture is changing.

The flow of change began, naturally, with changes in school achievement and has now flooded through into higher education, including into graduate schools. The scale of the change is dramatic. For the 55-64 age group, 15% of women have attained tertiary education, on average across OECD countries; for men of that age group the figure is 21%.  But for the 25-34 age group that large superiority (if that is the right term) is turned into a significant lag (if that also is the right term): 33% of women compared with  28% of men.   In so-called ‘high performing’ education systems the difference seems to be biggest: for Finland the gap is 17 percentage points (47 to 30)  and for Canada it is 13 (60 to 47).

Moreover, in some countries, notably the US, the completion rates tell an even more dramatic story than the participation rates.  A reasonably reliable source told me that of those completing 4-year degrees in the US, nearly 70% are now women.  This is an extraordinary divergence.

 Why is this happening,  and what are the consequences?  It could of course be biology –  once the sexist favouring of boys (by families and schools) disappeared, girls have simply come into their own as naturally superior students.  Well, maybe.  It could be changes in teaching and assessment techniques.  But the strongest explanation for me is the peer group support which females give to each other.  At school level, talking about their studies and their homework is a part of social communication among most girls, along with music, friends, fashion and so on. The proportion of time devoted to it may be small, but it is there.  It signals some kind of recognition that doing well at school matters, and is acceptable.  We know the same is not the case in many male peer groups.  Girls help each other to do well by building peer groups that reinforce educational achievement as valuable, and at the same time provide practical information and assistance.  So the classic social capital recipe is present:  networks of people who share similar values and who help each other to attain their goals.

For adults, at university and elsewhere, the picture is less clear, partly because it is all rendered more complex by generational changes and mixes.  Maybe some of the current research on gender in higher and continuing education illuminates these processes, ie whether there are gender differences in the patterning of mutual student support, and in the way male and female students set aspirations and goals.  I do not know of such work, nor of the current completion rates for males and females in FE colleges and other institutions, at different ages – maybe readers can enlighten me on both.  In any case, an approach which looked at networks of mutual support could help to explain differential achievements, where these occur, as well as participation rates.  In other words, social capital may be the reason why women participate actively in post-compulsory education (at whatever level).  And it may also explain why they are more likely to complete their courses successfully, if this is indeed  the case.

But what are the consequences/  If women are doing so much better than men, including at the top end of the educational tree, why is progress towards occupational and earnings equality so slow?  The figures on women in senior positions have shifted painfully slowly in most occupations, even allowing for the lag between generations graduating and arriving at the top a couple of decades later.  

Here social capital almost certainly plays an anti-meritocratic role.  Male networks operate to exclude women or to reward them at less than equitable rates.   Almost all of us will have seen this in operation, and many of us (men mainly, but women too) will have actively taken part in it, wittingly or not.  The values percolating down through the hierarchy may not enable women to put their skills and competences to best effect, or have them recognised.  The ‘linking ‘social capital, which straddles different hierarchical levels to enable people lower down to move up, may not be strong enough.

This sounds quite general, banal even.  But we need to explore explanations for what is one of the big seismic shifts in the educational geological landscape.

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comment sent by Christina Hinton, 14.06.2007
This is a very interesting perspective. For centuries, men outnumbered women on college campuses. Why? Because they grew up in a world where the president of Harvard University, Charles W. Eliot, refused to admit women, arguing that they would waste the school's resources. Now, in a culture where girl's academic potential is recognized, young women are encouraged to enter college – particularly by other women. Older generations of women remind young women that the opportunities they have were hard-won and they should value them. Young women encourage one another, talking about school and helping one another with assignments. As Tom notes, this reinforces educational achievement as valuable. Boys, on the other hand, seem immersed in a subculture where academic achievement is not "cool" or valued.

The next question, then, is: Can we restructure schools to promote a culture where academic achievement is valued by all students? In a longitudinal study in Washington D.C. schools, Dr. Marcon found that boys who attend kindergartens that focus on social and emotional skills – as opposed to only academic learning – perform better, across the board, by the time they reach junior high. Given the crucial role of social capital in supporting achievement, should schools be doing more to encourage a socially supportive culture for both girls and boys?

comment sent by Ed Dodds 26.06.2007

The next question, then, is: Can we restructure schools to promote a culture where academic achievement is valued by all students? I would argue the real challenge is owning up to the "new" reality that academia promotes the broad liberal arts notion of "academic achievement" while corporations are continually narrowing the sets of functional skills so that tasks groups can be "packaged", standardized and outsourced. There needs to be a recognition that society no longer values broad thinking ( in the sense that it compensates employees for having it ). That disconnect either needs to be acknowledged or addressed by academia since the profit motive driven corporations are unlikely to modify themselves.

Welcome to my blog

I thought a blog might do two things. First, I and my colleagues work to provide international comparisons of education. In our case this is more about the analysis of practice and innovation in different countries than about statistics. We obviously think this is interesting, and hope it is helpful. But what do people use international comparisons for? We rarely get to hear answers to this, and it would be good to hear from anyone who does use them. In particular, I hope it's for more than just ranking countries in league tables, which is often the media's main interest.

Secondly, and on a very different tack: I know that more and more people are using blogs to display to the world out there what they can do: their experience and their skills. I'm interested in whether the blogosphere may be replacing in some ways the whole apparatus of qualifications and diplomas. If so, maybe it's a welcome development, since far too much time and effort is spent on gathering certificates. On the other hand, how do you check whether or not people really have the skills they claim in their blogs? After all, that's why public qualifications were invented - as a way of confirming that people had the competences they claimed. Of course there's a much wider question behind this, which is the blurring of the boundaries between real life and virtual lives, but that's another story completely.

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